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  1. #1

    Short story: Afterlife (Critique pretty please)

    He opens his eyes, blinks a few times, and thinks himself blind. There is nothing but darkness: perfect, immovable, deep. More felt than seen, like old bones anticipating rain. Not that he was ever old—quite the contrary. But he remembers those soft coastal mornings, waking up and feeling the rain about to fall. Waking up now, though—thinking—feeling—wasn’t quite what he expected when he climbed into that tub.

    For a moment he ponders that perhaps he has failed: that he is lying in a hospital bed, only his mind awoke before the body and was caught in that brief long moment between the sterile white light and his pupils. But then again, how could that be? For he remembers dying, every moment of it: the X-Acto knife with a number 2 blade; the thin red diagonal on his wrist; the hunger with which water took to blood; waiting for his life to flash before his eyes and giving up; the sheer weight of his head; reading her note until the paper turned to pulp; whispering those words like a last rite, a prayer, an apology; the sense of relief as the light began to flicker; the claws of guilt letting go at last. Come, come, sweet oblivion, unto me. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

    Every death is a cliché.

    Now the darkness dims. The world emerges like a negative in a darkroom, all contrast and no color. He finds himself upright. There is no light but he can see, barely, as in a predawn pall. And-as far as he can see, a desert of ash: everything barren, gray, still. Whoever was it that said hell is the absence of life?

    Clang.

    He whirls around. An immense robed figure stands before him, almost double his size and height. A long hood drapes over its face but he has only to look up-and there see his own face gazing back at him. He draws back in shock but recovers. It’s only a mask. A mask of mirror.

    The mask covers the entirety of the figure’s face. He examines it, and in doing so examines himself as reflected: a naked man with a gaping hole in his chest. He pictures himself saying “The bullet went right through,” or “It’s just a flesh wound.” There’s something absurd about those lines but he can’t quite place them in context. Anyway, hardly the time to pursue such line of thought, with this imposing thing—being—

    That speaks. Its voice is a subterranean rumble, more hummed than said, each protracted syllable trailing its own echo. The meaning travels up his body in a shiver.

    You have been measured.

    He touches the cavity’s round edges, the flesh pink and tender. No jutting bones, no cobweb of arteries and veins. It’s clean nothingness all the way through and he can just about see the other side, if he pulls down his chin. A thin glowworm scar on his wrist catches his eyes.

    A thought occurs to him, voices itself.

    Is she-here?The figure cocks its mirrored head. It does not speak but he can feel its gaze from behind the mask, looking at his hole, looking through him, past him. Slowly, it raises one arm toward him. The motion reveals its hand, surprisingly human except for long metallic nails rolled down and out, hanging from spindly fingers like wind-chimes. They clang and rattle as the figure points a finger at him and then back at the distant gray nothingness.

    That is answer enough. He starts walking.

    ***

    He has been walking—for how long, he does not know. Time feels different—irrelevant—now that he has no point of reference. A second, an hour, a hundred years—what does it matter? Time has moved on—or rather, he from it. There is no desert sun, no blistering wind, no frozen sand mirroring moonlight. Only the perpetual gray, the semidarkness. And perhaps, somewhere in between, the eventuality of arrival.

    He does not know. He knows nothing. Perhaps there is no such thing as arrival, in life or in death. Perhaps there is only continuation, inertia, and this endless stretch of ash. Horizon is a lie; you cannot reach what does not exist. But he goes on, because he does not know. Perhaps perhaps perhaps.

    His steps are relentless. Neither hunger nor thirst ravages him. His body is a thing detached from his mind--he feels it as an expression of his will, a puppet. As long as he wills it, he can go on. Death has dulled his body.

    What do you desire?

    The question rears its head again, ever doggedly. He deflects it with due familiarity. Death has dulled his body but not his mind. That which the strife of living had kept anchored for so long is at last unbound. Now his thoughts roam unhindered, uninterrupted, bringing fire to even the darkest corners of his consciousness—

    Emily.

    And just like that, it is out.

    The name brings him a familiar pang, even after death. The irony does not escape him. Here, the very reason he drained himself of life in that tub. Just as it had hounded him in life: always there, even when she wasn't. No, especially when she wasn't. For years he had tried everything to go on without her—moved away, got a new job, talked to shrinks and took their numbing pills—until, one day, he saw himself in the mirror and did not want to go on. It all made so much sense then, to off himself the same way she had, down to the X-Acto knife.

    And here he is now, a dead man walking.

    There is no redemption for one such as you. There is nothing you can say to her.

    It was her choice.

    The same tired excuse. Almost a reflex now. How many times did he try to exonerate himself with those words? But each time all they brought was the look on her face when he'd told her: It's your body. It's your call. The worst kind of cowardice is the one that presents itself between the lines.

    Yes, yes it was my fault. I was afraid. I made a mistake and she paid the price. I paid the price. And perhaps it is selfish of me now to want something I don't deserve. But if death does not clean the slate, if she is here, somewhere, I have to try.

    Nothing's stopping you from forgetting.

    With that, the voice is gone.

    But the shame and the guilt rage on quietly in its wake, wild alive shadows on his mind’s walls dancing their lurid savage dance. Each gesture is condemnation, recrimination. He watches them, lets the performance repeat. Do not flinch. Accept it. Let it wash over you.

    He realizes that he has stopped and wills his body forward again.

    The shadows fade after a time. He wipes off their thick oppressive scum from the walls and reveals the pain long etched in his mind. It is a dog-eared map coming apart of age, of nowhere continents and illegible waters. Is this all I am, will ever be? So he had asked before, and found the answer lacking. Now there is defiance, exhortation. He takes the map by its corners and pulls it down, piece by piece, layer by layer. How easy, how very easy, peeling back the films that felt immovable in life.

    And the memories he thought forever tainted by her death surface, like bottled letters that have made it across the sea—each one pure, whole, and impossibly alive for having endured the unendurable.

    He opens one.

    *******

    It’s 2005. We’re at Tofino beach, sitting on a log drinking warm beer. Not many people around on a cold November day. We are more or less alone. The last of the stragglers are hurrying off, it’s getting windy; the rainclouds are creeping in. You can feel the air getting heavier, wetter.

    You have on that grey pea coat from Salvation Army store, yes, the one you bought along with the wool scarf. Between the collar lifted up and your hair flapping about, I can hardly make out your face. Only the tip of your nose drifts in and out of my vision when you tilt your head to take a sip, like one of those tiny rocks that transform into islands at low tide. Anyway, I don’t need to look at you to know the face you’re making: that empty stare, clenched jaws, mouth tightened to a slit. Lonesome, lonesome.

    We should get going.
    Not yet.
    Come on, it’s going to rain.
    No.

    We’ve hardly spoken to each other in three days, and what words we’ve shared have been civil and short. We haven’t had a real conversation in weeks. Not since we got back from the clinic. Even as we sit so close—an arm's reach away—the distance between us feels immutable.

    And I hate this. This trip, this beach, us. I want to dispel your silence, I want to break it open, I want to stop feeling this helplessness of wanting to do something but not knowing what. I know: you told me I’ve done nothing wrong, that you just need time to recover, that it’ll all be back to normal—why don’t we get away for a little while, anywhere, just the two of us? But I’m starting to panic. I feel like I’m being punished, and I need to know the terms.

    I get you in the car after many pleas and half-threats. You turn on the radio, recline your seat. Come on baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on fire, yeah. The song syncopates uneasily between the rain and the slush-thunk of the wipers. Come on baby, light my fire. Come on baby, light my fire. I sing along, all bravado and no skill. It doesn’t make you laugh, no. But I feel some of the tension dissipate.

    We have to run from the parking lot to the cabin. It takes us less than a minute but we’re soaked nonetheless. The dry air with a hint of synthetic pine greets us like a fresh grave. I light the fireplace. You disappear into the shower, and emerge in a few minutes with a towel piled majestically on your head. You seem better. Something about your mannerism, the way you move in my old university sweater. We fix dinner together, eat, and make small talk about the news. All those lives in New Orleans—the displacement, the sudden homelessness, the forced Diaspora. You ask: why do we name hurricanes after women? Why give human names to such impossible suffering?

    That night we try to make love. We try to make amends with the familiarity of our bodies. You take me in, I feel you close around me, and I think maybe we’ll be all right, maybe we’ll get through this—whatever this is. But as we lay prostrate on damp white sheets not touching each other, that sinking feeling returns in my gut.

    Even the walls seem tired, then, of looking in and seeing nothing.

    **************************

    It is a strange thing, queer even, to remember with such clarity of emotion. To feel so much and remain unmoved—no, balanced—, to feel without the affectations and lies put together for circumnavigation of life. I have died a long time ago, then. Remorse fills up his lungs. A sudden and profound craving for cigarette seizes him. But this too passes, through and out of him, like a sigh.

    And at last he understands the catastrophe that was the almost-togetherness of their lives. All those lines that were drawn across the years, what was really being said in their mutual exclusion and later, recriminations (a cry for help; declarations of love; dejections; apologies), and the simple veracity of love that, when given form, destroyed them both. Who was more afraid, more at fault? He cannot say. They had hurtled themselves toward each other across a great distance, missed, and instead of continuing on their separate trajectories, found in each other a binary moon—orbiting the shared emptiness in the black of space. Till death do us part.

    The ash beneath him begins to turn and churn. The flat and gray desolation rises up in the distance; the horizon shimmers and undulates, full of elongations and contractions. The edges of the world are curling up, up, up, like a cosmic feline folding unto itself.

    He looks down at his body that has become a bundle of nervous, frantic lines, as in a Van Gogh painting. A child appears out of nowhere, little ways off to his right, similarly made up of lines. She waves at him for attention. The gesture makes him dizzy. A scintillating, precocious thing.

    Cool, huh?

    She giggles at his stupefaction.

    Who are you?

    I’m Amy. I was named after a character in a French film who was this charming eccentric girl whose mother was crushed to death when an American tourist jumped from the top of the Notre Dame and fell on her.

    Her voice has that fluid sing-song quality which shows in her words like an amateur’s snapshot of fireworks. He wonders how this massive gray nothingness must appear to her.

    Oh.

    Have you seen it? Well, you had your big revelation right? So I’m here to tell you it’s time to go.

    I think I might have.

    I haven’t, and I’d like to see it.

    So, um, Amy, do you know what’s happening?

    I’m looking for someone and I can’t leave until I find that person.

    Oh yeah? Who are you looking for?

    My wife.

    What’s her name? What did she look like? How did she die?

    Emily. She had brown hair. Blue eyes that sometime looked grey. She—

    I remember her! She didn’t tell me her name, though. She said she was a sculptor who taught art in elementary school. I didn’t know what papier-mâché is until she told me.

    Yes. That’s her. That’s Emily.

    It’s been a very long time.

    Do you know where she went, Amy?

    You might never find her. If you do she might not remember you.

    It doesn’t matter. Tell me where she went, please.

    Are you sure you don’t wanna just stay and watch the movie with me?

    I thought you were telling me it’s time to go.

    Well time doesn’t mean much, here.

    Maybe some other time.

    Time time time.

    She smiles a pouty sly smile.

    Alright.

    She claps her hands twice.

    Let there be light.

    A pillar of light bursts forth from the hole in his chest. It illuminates everything. Amy waves goodbye. A mechanical hum not unlike that of an old cinema projector fills the space and he is sucked inward through the hole in his chest, into the light. This time his life does flash before his eyes, coming into brilliance and then darkening, lingering-a pageantry of afterimages gathering themselves into a single blind forever. Blissful, blissful disintegration! He wants to let go of himself, to allow himself the unfathomable pleasure of feeding himself into nonexistence one human thought at a time.

    But then he remembers those words which give him pause:

    Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

    And then:

    A lover’s discourse today is of an extreme solitude.

    He lands on muddy ground with a wet thud. All around him are thickets of reeds, grown high and brown and rubbing against each other as breezes comb through them. He can smell the river before he can hear it—that damp indistinct scramble of life and decay, mud and daffodils, fish and birds, and time, compressed into fossils and rocks, clashing against the guttural need for movement.

    He lies still for a moment, utterly confused. His mind is fractured and leaking. Some unspoken urgency in his belly begins to gnaw at him and he wants to name it and make it stop. It drives him up the slope. He keeps muttering those words now burnt in his mind without really knowing what they mean and without really remembering their significance until he mixes them up and loses them too.

    A row of orange trees greet him atop the riverbank. The river runs wide and strong. A veritable mass of land stretches beyond it, plains, hills, and snow-capped mountains. Forests, glens, glades. An overlarge sun hangs in the cloudless sky, its tendrils extending across the land and into the water’s surface like a pair of thirsty hands.

    There’s a woman gathering oranges not far away from him. She hasn’t seen him yet. With one arm she’s holding several oranges against her bare stomach while grasping for more with another. He doesn’t know why the sight of her fills him with such joy. But it does and it overwhelms him. He starts to weep and laugh at the same time. No other animal but human could die of joy. None other.

    The woman whips around at the terrible noise, all nerves and sinewy reflex. The oranges get flung out of her arm.

    They roll down the bank. They roll down into the reeds. They roll down into the mud, and on. The river laps up their skin gladly, carrying their weight forward into the unknowable.

  2. #2
    Speaks fluent Bawehrf zachariah's Avatar
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    I really like what you've got going here - you haven't just read The Road, by any chance?

    Somewhat florid in parts, but overall a pleasing, wistful account of the afterlife that, although borrowing heavily on a lot of existing work (heavily reminiscent of What Dreams May Come, for instance), holds its own voice and kept me reading to the end. Thanks for sharing!

  3. #3
    Speaks fluent Bawehrf zachariah's Avatar
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    One other thing - during the dialogue between Man and Amy, they appear to swap roles, or you've missed a line. I would not be in the least surprised to hear you say you intentionally swapped them over for a stylistic flourish, but I'd have to recommend you go for a seamless reading experience over authorial cleverness.

  4. #4
    Thanks for taking the time, zacariah.

    I do happen to be a big fan of McCarthy, although I haven't heard of What Dreams May Come. The premise does indeed sound very familiar!

    Yes, the potentially confusing dialogue between Man and Amy is intentional. I'll be sure to consider your thoughts when revising. Which I don't want to do just yet.

    Thanks again!

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